brandon_scott (brandon_scott) wrote,

Libertarians are usually about 80% correct

 I like the theory of libertarian/Randian/objectivist politics. They're straightforward, logical, reasonable, and axiomatic. They generally start with "first principles" and derive the rest of their philosophy from those principles through Reason. "You own yourself" is one such axiom. David Boaz of the Cato Institute offers his own explanation:
"The application of science and reason to the study of politics and public policy. ... Libertarians try to discover the rules that govern the world and rules that will enable us all to live together and enjoy the rights in the declaration of independence. Rules like private property, free markets, and tolerance. ... Don't hit other people, don't take their stuff, and keep your promises."
These first principles are totally sensible to me. The axioms that follow are sensible as well. This is a Libertarian sales pitch, and sales pitches always sound reasonable.

There's a point between theory and reality where the rubber meets the road. "Sounds good, but does the world always work that way?" In 1687 Newton came up with a really great theory about planetary motion which people only accepted after seeing that the world really worked that way. In 1905 Einstein noticed that the laws of motion weren't completely correct, and after that was verified Newton's theory was modified with disclaimers for special cases. The whole theory wasn't discredited and thrown out, but it did have to be modified to be compatible with evidence.

That doesn't happen much in Libertarian circles, where a perverse fundamentalism frequently pervades. Take the recent Rand Paul meltdown  about the Civil Rights Act and personal freedom. Libertarian theory says that businesses refusing service to certain races will serve fewer customers than businesses who serve everyone. Businesses with a better reputation in the community will end up outcompeting the bigots. But for decades that's not what happened, which is why we needed a Civil Rights Act. This is the sort of argument that just won't register with a fundamentalist libertarian, who will concoct some sort of implausible fantasy where segregation would have ended even faster with fewer problems if the government hadn't gotten involved.

Libertarian theories about corporate liberty are also at occasional odds with reality. BP is of course in the business of pumping oil, not spilling it. The recent 290,000 barrel oil spill represents $20,300,000 in lost sales not to mention the destroyed rig, dead employees, and bad PR, none of which BP wanted. The government's "boot heel on the throat of BP" is therefore counterproductive, unnecessary, and un-American, in theory. But in reality, when things go horribly wrong all he can say is "sometimes accidents happen." What about solutions? A libertarian would argue that this can be worked out in the courts. In theory fishermen and beach property owners can sue BP, and making the company responsible for cleaning up the mess rather than socializing the cost of the cleanup. Did the free market clean up the oil yet? Not exactly. Lawsuits drag out for years. Exxon has just gotten started paying for the Valdez spill 20 years ago. This is the sort of argument that just won't register with a fundamentalist libertarian, who will concoct some sort of implausible fantasy where fewer beaches get spilled and cleanups happen faster if the government hadn't gotten involved.

Libertarian theory says that government interference stifles economic progress and promotes economic injustice. Taxing the rich to benefit the poor creates incentives to stay poor and reduces incentives for the poor to get rich. Compulsory education at government-run schools gives people curricula and teachers that they wouldn't have chosen. But surveys of reality show that social mobility is lower in America than in socialist countries. The ability of a hard-working poor person to rise from their humble origins (or the ability of a lazy son of a rich person to fall) is lower in America, where we'd expect the opposite to be true. This is the sort of argument that just won't register with a fundamentalist libertarian, who will concoct some sort of implausible fantasy where America would somehow be even higher than Denmark - the most socialist nation in Europe - if the government hadn't gotten involved.

Social Mobility

I'm obviously cherry-picking notable exceptions to an otherwise reasonable idea, but that's my point. There are notable, important exceptions to otherwise reasonable ideas. I love libertarian philosophy. I'm probably about 80% libertarian. I think that, general case, libertarian decisions are good decisions the way that fresh natural food is good food. But the people who think that every problem has a socialist cause and libertarian solution are about as annoying to me as the people who think that every health proble has a toxic cause and a naturopathic solution. Libertarians play as fast and loose with sneaky definitions of "socialism" and "individual liberty" as naturopaths play with "toxin" and "medicine". I'm objective, not an objectivist, and I don't admire fundamentalist interpretations of principles that aren't actually fundamental. The longer politicians like Rand Paul (or his father) spend trying to fit every problem into that mold rather than approaching the problem pragmatically the sillier they'll look.
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